About Juan Lucena


First Encounters with Engineers and Politics

I was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, in a paternal family of lawyers-turned-politicians and a maternal family full of engineers married to my aunts. Family events were filled with discussions that mixed politics and engineering in very natural ways. No wonder I grew up seeing this relationship as given. At age 13, I left Colombia for the US and landed in Spanish Harlem in New York City where, right off the plane, I witnessed racism and poverty in what was considered the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth. This experience has shaped how I view social relations in the US from that time to the present. I finished high school in New York Military Academy where I gained respect for military life yet learned to question authority and rules, especially if they attempt against students’ wellbeing.    

Since early childhood, I wanted to be a marine biologist but my dad convinced me that this profession had no future in Bogota located at 2,600 meters above sea level. So my career options narrowed down to law (so I could follow my family tradition into politics) or engineering. I chose engineering after becoming enamored with cars, machining parts, welding and most things mechanical hanging out with mechanics in Bogota’s auto parts neighborhoods. My mom actually let me set up a mechanic shop in her house where my friends and I prepared cars for rally races. During my first year in mechanical engineering at Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota,I learned a lot about mechanics, but more from street mechanics than from professors, and quickly began to question the usefulness of teaching decontextualized math- and science-based problem solving in engineering. The problem-solving methods found in my engineering textbooks had little usefulness for the problems that I was finding in the street shops. 

A Split Self to Succeed in Engineering

Moving back to the US to continue studying engineering at Florida Tech, I fell in love with the rockets and space shuttles being launched from Kennedy Space Center while suffering a significant heartbreak after breaking up with my Colombian girlfriend. Quickly I learned that to succeed in engineering I had to deny my feelings (heartache) and separate my emotional self from my intellectual-geeky self. I mastered this strategy and got a 4.0 GPA that allowed me to transfer to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but the unprocessed mourning of a lost relationship would haunt me for many years. Later as a professor, I vowed to never demand from my engineering students that they separate their emotional life from engineering. In my classes, I require that they always bring both to problem definition and solution.

Engineering is Always Political

At RPI, I applied my own lesson not to separate my emotional life from engineering thus dedicating equal times to my passion for racquetball, dancing, and engineering. My GPA suffered but I was growing up happier and wholesome. During my senior year while designing sailplanes made of composite materials and experimenting in wind tunnels and shock tubes, I met Langdon Winner who invited me to his Politics of Design class where I began to make sense of the material and social relationships behind the financing of the labs, buildings, instruments, and people that were allowing me to become a mechanical and aeronautical engineering. The STS program at RPI began to give me the conceptual and methodological tools to understand the deep connections between engineering and politics through coursework and three specific projects: an ethnography of composite material labs (I was one of the first students working in the project that resulted in this book); an ethnography of appropriate technology farms in the US Northeast (my first exposure to what we call today humanitarian engineering); and an analysis of the history of NSF funding for its Ethics and Values in Science and Engineering program led by Rachelle Hollander (perhaps the first and most important source of federal funding for what was now become the field of Science and Technology studies).

At NSF, first as a graduate intern and then as a program manager, I got to witness many of the engineers managing NSF using engineering flow equations and models to construct what we know today at the STEM pipeline. They viewed the education system as a flow model, students as flow particles that leave the STEM pipeline as they progress from K to PhD, and treated those who left as “leaks” that needed to be retained or lost forever. Looking at students through a deficiency lens, these engineers-policymakers never questioned the system itself or its knowledge content (see my book Defending the Nation for a full analysis). Working only one block from the World Bank (as NSF old building was on G Street two blocks from the White House), during lunch breaks and happy hours, I hung out with development technocrats who at the end of the 1980s were in love with neoliberalism and its development stepchild:  structural adjustment. Using a different deficiency lens, these technocrats described how “underdeveloped” countries and their “backward” communities needed privatization and the free markets to fix all their ills. These exchanges with engineering and economics technocrats came to shape my critique of expert knowledge and development in profound ways.

In 1999, as a professor in Embry Riddle, I was the faculty director for the Washington Internship for Students of Engineering (WISE) program. Here, I had the honor to teach engineering students about the roles of engineers in politics. 

Understanding the Politics of Engineering

After NSF, I had the fortune to find Gary Downey who at that time (1990) was perhaps the only cultural anthropologist studying engineers in the US. Under his mentorship at the STS Program at Virginia Tech, I began to make sense of many of my previous experiences with engineers and politics. Working then as an ethnographer of engineering students’ lives, both in and out of the classroom, I understood my experience of having to compartmentalize emotions to succeed in engineering as I learned what engineering problem solving (EPS) does to students as persons (see Cyborgs and Citadels, chap 7). It was amazing to learn the dominance of EPS-based curricula in engineering education, especially how students are measured against how well they master EPS.  Everything else comes second. With Gary, we also researched and developed the Engineering Cultures course aimed at answering key questions in different national contexts: What is an engineer?  What is engineering for? What do engineers know and why? How are engineers expected to contribute to “progress” in different countries? Researching this course took us to many countries where we visited engineering schools, attended engineering conferences, interviewed engineering students, professors and professionals, did countless hours of participant observation, and even played “candid camera” on the streets asking locals about their perceptions of engineers, etc. The relationships between engineering and politics in different cultural contexts became very evident and we were thrilled to share these lessons with students. Somewhat frustrated with the treatment of engineers and engineering as a “less important” subject of study in STS, we began to argue for the importance of studying them in their own right, not downstream from science, and published the first ever chapter on Engineering Studies. Finally, I completed my dissertation on how the US has created different policies to educate scientists and engineers from the Cold War to the 1990s, with the STEM pipeline as the most influential “boundary object”. I was fascinated to apply Foucaldian theories of governmentality to the making of US scientists and engineers as this has not been done before.

Making STS Relevant to Teach and Research Engineers

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Prescott hired me to build an STS-inspired program to help them diversify their programs. They wanted a new program that provided secured jobs in areas critical to aviation but not subject to the ups and downs of the airline boom and bust cycles. With Peter Quigley, then department chair and then dean, I built a program in Science, Technology, and Globalization (STG) with three job tracks in Technology, Policy and Management, Aviation Ecology, and Security and Intelligence. As a recent graduate of STS and now program director, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to apply STS in course development, career pathways, and faculty hiring around these three tracks. After 9/11, the security and intelligence track skyrocketed and became its own program and eventually a college. The other tracks eventually morphed into a BS in Global Business and Supply Chain Management and a BS in Applied Biology.

At ERAU, I became fascinated with how the image and practices of globalization were shaping engineering education and practice so I secured an NSF-CAREER grant to research this relationship in the aerospace industries in the US, Europe, and Brazil. This research took me deep inside the corporate walls of Boeing, Honeywell, Airbus and Embraer where I had the privilege to “hang out” and talk to engineers involved in the design and building of amazing machines like the Boeing Apache helicopter, the A 380 jetliner, the Boeing 717, and the Embraer E-175 (which I often fly out of Denver for short regional flights). To do deep hanging out with engineers, I enrolled as a student in a course on globalization that many of these engineers were taking at Thunderbird School of Global Management (now part of ASU). It was a humbling experience to be back in the classroom, now as a professor, experiencing how engineers were making sense of concepts that social scientists often claim complete ownership for themselves and then seeing how that very concept was shaping the way they designed, built, and operated flying machines. The dictum that the technical is always social and the social is always technical (hence all is sociotechnical) was happening right before my eyes as airplanes were making globalization happen and globalization was dictating how these machines were built and flown. In 2001, I had the honor of being one of the faculty teaching at the International Institute for Women in Engineering (Paris, France) to 30 female engineers from around the world. 

After securing tenure with the development, management, and growth of a unique undergraduate program and a healthy research agenda in engineering studies, I moved to the Colorado School of Mines to direct the McBride Honors Program in Public Affairs for Engineers. Seduced by the connection between engineering and politics in the honors program, which has been a constant in my entire intellectual life since childhood to professorship, I gave up tenure at ERAU to join Mines as McBride director. 

At Mines, after spending many summers conducting historical and ethnographic research  in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, I developed a new course in Engineering Cultures in Latin America where my Latino students felt pride and my anglo students were perplexed after learning that the study of mining engineering in Mexico had started at the Real Seminario de Mineria almost a century before the creation of the Colorado School of Mines. My research and teaching opened the eyes of students learning that schools of mining engineering in “underdeveloped” countries like Brazil and Colombia were created almost at the same time as Mines. My students were eager to know why Mines, and the US for that matter, highlights its history as if it is the only one that matters. The discussions with my students about history, development, and engineering were extremely enriching and planted the first seeds for the intellectual framework of Humanitarian Engineering at Mines.

Humanitarian Engineering

I resigned from McBride after realizing that the faculty at the time were not really interested in thinking through nor teaching the relationship between engineering and politics. McBride STEM faculty were just interested in having a sandbox to play amateur social scientists. Without tenure and in the midst of nasty institutional politics, I had the fortune to find the mentorship of Carl Mitcham with whom we wrote a proposal to the Hewlett Foundation to develop the first courses for the Mines Humanitarian Engineering (HE) program. The first HE course had 7 participating faculty – Junko Munakata, Jon Leydens, Jen Schneider, Carl Mitcham, David Frossard, Juan Lucena, Dave Munoz– visiting engineers from humanitarian organizations, and the great development economist turned critic of development Gustavo Esteva. In spite of the inefficiencies of this faculty-student ratio for a bean counter Provost, we delivered a great course. 

This was one of the most enjoyable collaborative experiences of my teaching career. Students got to see community development problems and potential solutions from anthropological, historical, engineering, philosophical, and economical perspectives. The discussions about the role of engineers in development, before, during and after class, made us realize that there was a need for research and curriculum development in this area. So we got our first NSF grant that led to the co-authored book (with Jon Leydens and Jen Schneider) Engineering and Sustainable Community Development. [more on the book] Researching and writing this book made us realize that most scholars and practitioners of sustainability and sustainable development, including engineers, were taking for granted the power structures in which these concepts and practices are embedded, hence taking for granted the inequalities created and recreated by these. In short, social justice was (and still is) mostly absent from engineering initiatives aimed at sustainable development.  There was no concern for “community” in engineering for sustainable community development. 

Engineering and Social Justice

Our first challenge to this gap came with a co-authored paper (with Jon and Jen) “Where is community?” which won Best Paper Award at the Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) conference in Graz, Austria. Using this momentum, we teamed up with a group of like-minded scholars and organized the first-ever National Academy of Engineering (NAE) workshop on Engineering, Social Justice, and Sustainable Community Development. At the end of this workshop, one of the most senior engineers of the US Army Corps of Engineering, and a member of the NAE, took the podium and, with a very energized voiced, reprimanded all participants for even considering the possibility of relating engineering with social justice as the latter “is the same as communism” and hence “un-American.” Jen, Jon and I left the workshop confused only to find ourselves at the FDR Memorial reading an inscription on the wall that read “IN THESE DAYS OF DIFFICULTY, WE AMERICANS EVERYWHERE MUST AND SHALL CHOOSE THE PATH OF SOCIAL JUSTICE” The contradiction between what we heard at NAE and what we read in the FDR memorial led us to write and get an NSF grant on the incommensurability between engineering and social justice.  We wanted to know (and teach) if this separation between the two had always existed and, if not, what were the historical circumstances that brought them together and then took them apart. We created a course called Engineering and Social Justice that I have taught regularly since then and has become one of the central pillars of our HE program at Mines. Teaching this course well requires beginning to expose the injustices created by capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism, and how these systems have permeated the institutions and practices of engineering education and profession. Hence many students strongly resist as they view engineering as politically neutral.


 This centering of social justice took Jen, Jon, and I to connect with a growing network of scholars and activists now gathering around the Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace (ESJP) network. We participated in many ESJP conferences in London, Bogota, Troy, and San diego and many of its leading scholars became close friends and colleagues. Jon and I realized that developing and teaching one course that our university and students considered as “just one more elective” was not enough to make a difference in engineering education.  

Expanding beyond our course, we conducted multiple faculty and curriculum development workshops at many engineering schools where our ESJ colleagues encouraged me to edit the book Engineering Education for Social Justice: Critical Explorations and Opportunities (Springer, 2013), where we first mapped the nascent field. Colleagues in engineering education also urged us to write a book that explored how engineering and social justice could be operationalized in three diverse components of the engineering curriculum: namely, engineering design, the engineering sciences, and humanities and social science courses designed for engineering students. That encouragement resulted in our (with Jon Leydens as lead author) 2018 book Engineering Justice: Transforming Engineering Education and Practice (Wiley/IEEE Press).


Our ESJ course, books, and research quickly materialized in opportunities to influence engineering science courses like Feedback Control Systems, Machine Design, and Electric Circuits; programs like Humanitarian Engineering (Colorado School of Mines) and Integrated Engineering (University of San Diego), diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives at engineering schools such as Colorado State, Oregon State, and University of Massachusetts; graduate engineering education programs at Ohio State, Purdue, and Virginia Tech; NSF-sponsored research grants on studying barriers and opportunities for low-income/first generation students in engineering, and on justice-driven sustainable community development in gold mining communities in Latin America; and other engineering professional conferences like IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, IEEE International Professional Communication Conference, Colombian Society for Engineering Education (ACOFI), and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME).

Recognized through ASEE Best Paper Awards in multiple divisions (Minorities in Engineering (2017), LEES (2023), and Community Engagement (2022)), our ESJ work will continue to influence innovative engineering education networks (e.g., Engineering for One Planet Network funded by the Lemelson Foundation), new areas in engineering education (e.g., Energy Systems and Robotics at Mines), and in humanitarian and community development engineering (e.g., recycling of electronic and construction waste; migrant and forcibly displaced communities).


A lot of my life revolves around physical activities as I believe that our bodies are the windows to our souls and the connecting bridge to Mother Earth. The crisis of modernity ( and one of its central tenets: the separation of mind and body) made me debunk the primacy of the cognitive (brain/head) over the body (flesh/senses). So my main way to connect with the world, other human and non-human beings, and with myself is through physical activity, mainly cycling, golf, and skiing. 


Not only is the bicycle one of the most efficient machines ever created (an engineer’s dream) but it is the most sustainable, socially just, and enjoyable means of transportation. I own many bikes or different geometries and materials; each one with its own personality. I began biking seriously at age 14 (1978) when I had to pedal across Bogota to see the soccer world cup games on the only color TV available at the time. Since then, I have biked in every city where I have lived. Biking is my religion, a place where I meditate, listen to my favorite music, and enjoy some of my favorite conversations. I used to compete on climbing time trials like the Bob Cook Memorial up to Mot Evans to honor my Colombian heritage of Escarabajo, on Century rides, and on Triple Bypass rides in Colorado. Now I do it to breathe the morning air, enjoy the views, and be one with the bike. 


As one of the most sexist, classist, racist games, golf is also a beautiful game if played for the right reasons and with the right people (or better yet, by yourself). Unique among games that require physical activity, golf requires connections among mind, body, soul, club, ball, air, and soli:  it is truly ZEN. I have been golfing for 7 years now, since my encounter with the game in St Andrew’s, Scotland, where the game is really the game of all people, as it should be. Instead of being discriminatory (usually of those who are non-white and non-males), golf in St Andrews is played by all people; even those who do not play enjoy the beauty of the courses. Golf’s honesty requires you to really clear your mind and be at peace with your soul before and at the moment of impact. If you don’t, the little white ball will tell you. While you can lie to yourself and others, the little ball won’t lie about your state of being. This is the kind of honesty check that we humans don’t get very often, not even from therapy.  I get it from golf.


I took up skiing when I moved to Colorado in 2002. Thanks to an instructor who trained ski athletes and military divisions who train in the snow, I developed a holistic approach to skiing that includes learning about the different kinds of snow and how to ski them, the different kinds of skis and how to ski them, and how to prepare my body. Like in golf, there is a unique connection between mind, body, feet, boots/skis, and snow: it is also truly ZEN but at 50 mph. My favorite place to ski is Loveland ski area as it attracts no-frills, no-BS type of skiers and, unlike fancy resorts, it makes skiing affordable for most families. 



United States